Avalanches/Costa/Human League 2001 David Bennun
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The Avalanches/
Nikka Costa/
Human League

[The Mail on Sunday, 2001]

Concorde 2, Brighton



THE Avalanches, through no fault of their own, are this week's Future Of Rock'n'Roll. Next week something else will trundle into town and this Australian sextet will be free to get on with whatever it is they do. It's not exactly clear what that is. But they do it very well.
 The Avalanches' studio technique is far from novel. They assemble entirely new records from bits of old ones, something hip hop artists have been doing for more than twenty years.
 Nor are The Avalanches unique in the type (eccentric) and number (huge) of bygone discs they use. DJ Shadow, for example, has spent years conjuring mood music of extraordinary loveliness from a similarly vast and oddball selection of sources. The Avalanches are merely the latest in a series of musical rag-and-bone men, sampler-wielding Steptoes scavenging treasure from a century's worth of vinyl junk.
 What does set them apart is the meticulous glee with which they go about it. Each track on their album, Since I Left You, is a scrupulously sewn patchwork. But for all its necessary precision, their music has a unruly quality; that clever-stupid way of making outlandish ideas seem blindingly and thrillingly obvious, which has turned Fatboy Slim into a millionaire and may yet do the same for this bunch of inspired bozos.
 Their current single Frontier Psychiatrist, is a thing of wonder. It's preposterously catchy, stuffed with daft snippets of movie dialogue, snatches of horns, an other-worldly choir, and the band's particular obsession, fragments of dusty, long-forgotten horse operas.
 In the hands of a less skillful and imaginative crew, it would have been a novelty number at best. Instead, it's one of the best things to hit our half-starved charts all year. Hence the bombardment of overly hopeful predictions. The Avalanches won't change the course of pop music. Having seen them in action, I wouldn't trust them to change the course of a milk float.
 Nothing on their album, and little else this side of Bedlam, can prepare you for The Avalanches' live act. Their studio output bears as much resemblance to tonight's performance as does the Middle Wallop Air Show to a kamikaze raid by the massed squadrons of the Japanese Imperial Air Force on a warehouse full of Roman candles and bedsprings.
 They know how to make an entrance. A sudden blaze of white light and an almighty stadium-rock rumble. You half expect some hoary old axeman like Ted Nugent to carom onstage and butcher a horse. Instead, standing revealed is a gang of Sergio Leone villains. After two weeks on the loco juice. And inexplicably equipped with turntables, guitars, an organ, a drumkit and a theremin.
 It's impossible to tell what's plugged in, apart from the record decks. There seems to be no causal link between anything that happens onstage, and the colossal, rhythmic racket that pours off it, which at no point bears the remotest likeness to the band's album. It sounds like a Guadalajara bar brawl set to a funky backbeat, and it's great. I could be wrong, but one of them appears to be playing his hat.
 What we're seeing here is pop at its most elemental - a clutch of starstruck herberts larking and looning about to their favourite records. Somehow the bedroom mirror has been supplanted by us, the audience. It's fantastic fun. I almost wish they were the future of rock'n'roll.
 On to another newcomer, one who smacks more of rock'n'roll's past. Nikka Costa is a pert little baggage with a penchant for less clothing than is strictly necessary. No shortage of such nymphets just now; but not many of them cultivate a vocal and sartorial resemblance to Janis Joplin.
 The excellent single, Like A Feather, is a slick, buoyant update of Sixties blues-rock, and if it doesn't launch Costa in a big way, someone's not doing their job right. Unfortunately, the rest of Everybody Got Their Something is rather more like an anvil.
 Costa is undoubtedly talented, but her determination to seem serious and significant, combined with her piety over rawk tradition, makes this CD very heavy going. Is the brisk, modern feel of Like A Feather a sop to the pop market? Then next time around she should sell out completely. She might make an entire album that good.
 If you're going to sound ancient, you might as well be ancient. The Human League are back. On Secrets they perform an imitation of themselves so uncanny as to be downright eerie. Shove this in your CD tray and the days of chugging electropop and straining, over-emotive baritones seem never to have gone away.
 Although no fan of Eighties nostalgia, I have to admit they've made a pretty fair fist of it. It's also gratifying to note that while Phil Oakey has taken to impersonating a rather portly Mephistopheles, his lyrics are as hilariously clunky as ever they were. Likewise, his brace of robotic songbirds still embody, down to the last giant earring, a costermonger's notion of unattainable class.

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